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Missouri Bluffs Subdivision

Two deer graze alongside the Katy Trail near the planned site for the Missouri Bluffs subdivision on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. Photo by Colter Peterson,

A proposal to build up to 221 residences on the Missouri Bluffs near the Katy Trail will need approval from five of the seven St. Charles County Council members after the plans were rejected by the St. Charles County Planning and Zoning Commission on Wednesday.

The meeting was the latest review by county officials of a project by developer Greg Whittaker of NT Builders LLC to build 161 single-family homes and up to 60 multifamily units on the edge of the Missouri Bluffs Golf Club near Highway 40 (Interstate 64) on public land he plans to buy from the University of Missouri.

The project has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists and residents concerned the project would permanently mar the landscape and detract from the experience of people using the Katy Trail.

The commission, which makes recommendations to the council, voted 5-2 to reject a layout and lot design that requested a number of exceptions to county ordinances. Among other considerations, the design sought narrower roads and development on steeper slopes than usually allowed.

The changes were among a number of revisions to the project, including setting aside 62 acres between the housing tract and the Katy Trail for conservation, since it was first announced in 2017. Developers said the changes addressed environmental concerns and would minimize disturbance to the land.

“The idea behind this is to make it as rural as we can make it,” said Brad Goss, attorney for NT Builders, while presenting the plans to the commission.

Rhonda Hanne, of Weldon Spring, one of more than 16 people who spoke against the project during more than an hour of testimony, argued that no amount of revisions or special considerations would be enough to offset its environmental impact.

“While I commend the hard work that’s been done... I don’t care about it, because one house on that property is too many,” she said.

The St. Charles County Council will review the plans Aug 12. Approval from five of seven members will be needed for the project to pass.

That was the case in June 2018, when the council approved a concept plan for the project. The Planning and Zoning Commission had voted overwhelmingly two months earlier to recommend against the housing plan. After twice delaying a final vote to allow the developer to revise the project, the County Council overrode the commission's recommendation with a 5-1 vote that was met with a chorus of boos from the crowd of several dozen in the council chambers.

Though many people who spoke against the project voiced opposition to any construction on the bluffs, the commission's review was limited to determining whether the the layout and lot design conformed to the original concept plan the council approved last year and whether the requested variances from county zoning rules were viable.  

"We can’t consider the birds, we can only consider the variances," said Commission President Roger Ellis. 

County staff suggested the commission recommend the council approve the plans, but the commission voted against recommendation after voicing concerns including water runoff and traffic impact. 

"I think there are real concerns with the density of the development and the road width," said Commission member Kevin Cleary. "I think there are some safety issues with the length of the cul-de-sac, things like that. I think the tightness of the curves is a concern, and I think the steepness of the slopes and variances, also."  

Commission member Robert McDonald and Councilman Mike Klinghammer, who voted to approve the concept plan for the project last year, said he would rather the project go through with the requested variances than without them. 

"If we did turn it down, and if that’s the decision that’s made, it's not going to mean it’s not going to be developed anyway, and it could be something different," Klighammer said. 

The commission’s vote Wednesday was applauded by environmentalists and residents opposed to the project who packed the meeting. John Hickey, director of the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club, said they would continue to fight the project and pack the council meeting in August.

“It confirms what we’ve always said,” Hickey said. “This is the wrong place for this type of development.”

County expects to buy Golf Course

As St. Charles County officials consider the proposed subdivision plans, the county is also in final talks to buy from the University of Missouri about 100 acres of land next door not slated for housing. 

After its controversial decision to sell 135 acres it owns on the bluffs to Whittaker for the proposed subdivision, the university announced in spring that it was seeking public agencies to buy roughly 200 acres containing the Missouri Bluffs Golf Club and an additional 100 acres just west Highway 40 (Interstate 64). The land, in unincorporated St. Charles County, is just southeast of the proposed subdivision site. 

The university said 46 of those acres along the Katy Trail would be restricted for use as trails and public space. All 100 acres would be open to the public.

The golf course is governed by a long-term lease that prevents development for 74 years.

St. Charles County Counselor John Watson announced that the county's bid for the land was successful but that officials were still in negotiations to finalize the plans. If they secure the purchase, the county will ensure "that 286 acres will never be developed for industrial purposes," he said. 

"It will be utilized in perpetuity for the enjoyment of the beauty of that land," he said. "And we’ll put the type of restrictions on that land that will hold it in that status forever." 

The University of Missouri owned the bluffs land as part of the Missouri Research Park that developed along Highway 40 over the last 30 years.

The university received the 8,000 acres for $1 as federal surplus property in 1948. The federal government had taken parts of the property from residents during World War 2 for ordinance manufacture and uranium processing during. After fulfilling the stipulation that the land be used only for research for 20 years, the university gained the right to sell it.

Hanne, who spoke against the project Wednesday, is a descendant of people who once lived on the land. 

"It is a shame that all of this ground is going to be sold and these families are not going to have any benefit from it at all," she said. "If they’re not going to benefit from it, than it needs to stay in the community." 

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.